The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.

tayari-jones-800

Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

mlk jr

And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.

Tragedy and Opportunity

The American phenomenon of the “school shooting” has begun to take on the aspect of a recurring tragedy. It plays with astonishing regularity across our screens and is beginning to manifest itself with an increasingly scripted set of responses: outrage, the appeal for change, gun-control lobbying, blame, witch-hunting, and so forth.

Protesters_Florida.image

Photo by Alan Alvarez, the Independent Florida Alligator

In recent months, amid these almost trope-like responses, one in particular has stood out to me. In the face of a surge of (justifiably) outraged people—calling for reform and real change—certain voices chastise, claiming that “Now is not the time for politics, but for grief.” A tragedy occurs, frustrated people call for change, and in response others call for silence, reserve. This chastisement begs an enormous question—if now is not the “right time,” then when is? When is the right time to get outraged over tragedy? When is the right moment to mobilize people to make a difference? Is a day enough? Two days? How about a week? What is an “acceptable” timeline for calling people to action in the face of public tragedy?

Controlling-Puppet-MasterIn a moment I’m going to argue that the best time to speak is when tragedy is fresh, but before I do that I want to be clear that there are good reasons to apply brakes to our cultural outrage machine. I suspect, for many of the people I know who called for “grieving” over against mobilization, that there was a fear of undue, or even nefarious, politicization. There is real wisdom in discerning who is operating the machinery of our collective outrage, and it is true that politically motivated entities are fully aware that public outrage is a powerful tool for political leverage. Caution in the face of such a potential circumstance is surely a course of wisdom. And yet, being over cautious can perpetuate injustice. The only solution is to ensure that, before giving vent to our outrage, we have surveyed sufficient data about the situation. Outrage on the basis of snap judgments is a recipe for stupidity. We ought to read multiple sources, try to gain a bigger perspective, and refrain from blaming ideologies (for example, Islam) until we’ve got a fuller picture.

But is fear of being used the only fear at play when individuals reject a call to political action? Is there not also an anxiety at work? In my experience, people don’t deal well with tragedy, and one of the ways that people don’t deal well with tragedy is by telling other people how they ought to respond to a tragedy. Humans habitually become controlling in the face of our own loss of control. Could it not be that the language of a “period of grief” is a projection of personal anxiety upon the situation? Could it be that anxiety motivates a host of other responses to public tragedies—for example, the desire for a complete explanation (how did he/she get the gun? where were the security services?), the impulse to scapegoat (laws are inadequate, if only we had more guns in schools, etc.), and the satisfaction of blame (he/she was mentally ill, a Muslim, etc.)? Each of these, and the satisfaction they potentially give to the thinker, arguably answers his or her own personal anxiety more than giving a reflective response to the situation.

Outrage is powerful. Public outrage, inasmuch as it unifies diverse people around a common cause, is always politically powerful. The truth of the matter is that if we don’t speak into it and seek to shape it, someone else always will. The appeal to caution, to silence, to anti-politicization, will fall not only on deaf ears, but will result in the judgment that we who call for it are inept and out of touch, that we have nothing constructive to offer, and that, summarily, we can be ignored.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses crowd

Library of Congress. Dr. King addresses crowd at the state courthouse, Montgomery, AL (March 17, 1965)

Speaking as clergy, the moment of collective outrage is not to be missed as a moment for speech. It is precisely at such times that we must speak, and speak powerfully, and speak without projecting our own anxieties on other people. This is, fundamentally, a function of the prophetic office of the Church, where Godly speech shapes and gives meaning to difficult circumstances. Here, inspired calls to action seek to shape, and not suppress, the emotions of the masses. After all, if we in the Church do not strive to speak a Christian voice into our public discourse other voices surely will. If we do not offer a real meaning to the suffering, they will seek their meanings elsewhere. And together this means, as far as I can see, that the right moment to call Christians to action is exactly at the moment of tragedy. Is this opportunistic? Of course, in the same way that a harvest is opportunistic—in both cases it is a matter of not neglecting a clear and self-evident opportunity. Can it be abused? Of course it can, but abuse does not nullify proper use. The challenge is to use our speech rightly. To neglect such speech is to bury our talent in the ground.

So be outraged, and do not sin. Be awakened from complacency. Seek to embody a uniquely Christian solution to the tragedies of public gun violence. But for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t do nothing.

Show and Tell: A Critique of Public Rhetoric

Before I say anything constructive, consider the following four quotes—three taken from America’s Twitterer-in-Chief, and the fourth from C.S. Lewis:

“The media coverage this morning of the very average Clinton speech and Convention is a joke. @CNN and the little watched @Morning_Joe = SAD!” (@realDonaldTrump on July 29)

“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on “Russia,” with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” (@realDonaldTrump on June 27th)

“Crowd is booing the hell out of that phony decision – place is angry and going wild. Fight was not even close! DISGUSTING.” (@realDonaldTrump on May 4th)

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.” (C.S. Lewis to Joan Lancaster, 26 June 1956 [Letters to Children, 64])

Lewis and Trump

I put these four quotes here to highlight what is a growing pet-peeve I have with public rhetoric. Labels such as “Sad,” “Fake News,” and “Disgusting” are appearing with increasing frequency, and what I dislike about them so very much is that they pretend to draw your conclusions for you. Rather than engaging in the work of thinking, evaluating, and then drawing a proper conclusion from a piece of information, these conclusions are ready-packaged right from the start. You don’t have to think your way through right and wrong, I will simply tell you how to feel. #Convenient.

It’s worth unpacking this problem further. First of all, we should note that a declaration is not an argument. Simply because I declare something to be “disgusting” doesn’t make it disgusting. I might dislike it a lot. I might think you will dislike it a lot. But nothing replaces the task of actually arguing for why a given thing, person, or place is “disgusting,” and then for you to consider those arguments and make a judgment. In fact, it is the very business of public rhetoric to try to convince you—through argument—that one thing deserves one categorization and not another. It takes arguments to determine whether Republicans or Democrats are right about the management of American government. It takes arguments to determine whether or not the Affordable Care Act is a good or a bad program. And declarations are insufficient arguments. #Truth.

A further problem is how this trend reflects on our critical thinking more generally. Label-based rhetoric is certainly a much easier task to perform than argument-based rhetoric. It’s far simpler to call someone “Loser” than to actually demonstrate his or her failure. And while it is possible that this is simply a by-product of the medium—140 characters do not lend themselves to particularly deep and critical thoughts—the labelling of emotional responses to a given event smacks more of laziness than of constraints. When I write a one-word conclusive label to cap off a point then I’m asking you to do my work for me. #Lazy.

Related to this, I am reminded of another Lewis quote—this time from his book on education, The Abolition of Man. He writes,

“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeably, disgusting, and hateful. (The Abolition of Man, 28-29)

Looking at things this way, the activity of education is a kind of extended, grand, patient act of show-and-tell. The educator shows—for example in literature—an instance of the best, along with some instances of the worst, and permits the student to draw conclusions between the two. The best of education happens when the student is so sufficiently acquainted with the good that he or she can recognize it in other media. The conclusions will not have been drawn for you, you will be equipped to draw those conclusions for yourself. #Smart.

I think it unlikely that Trump will change his rhetorical habits. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is required to either ape his rhetoric, or cave to the lazy simplicity of labels. In fact, we have a civic (and indeed Christian) responsibility to act publicly with rhetorical dignity, honourability, and integrity. We must argue and not presume, and we must do these things with both respect for ourselves, and for our interlocutors. #Self-Respect.

Journalism and the Scriptures: Ground Rules

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An interesting read, but not for everyone.

An interesting read, but not for everyone.

Jake Adelstein is an aspiring Jewish-American journalist who surprisingly won a position as a reporter at a Japanese news agency. In his story, Tokyo Vice (Pantheon: New York, 2009), he retells his experiences as a young reporter learning the ropes of journalism in a foreign country, of mastering a difficult language, to his eventual work on the Vice squad, and ending with his efforts to expose Yakuza (Japanese mafia) crimes in human trafficking. His story is fascinating, gritty, and at times gruesome in its descriptions of human behaviour. (NB: Adelstein’s book is not for the faint of heart, and I would cautiously recommend it—with reservations—to others, like me, who enjoy crime stories, journalism, and are sometime Japanophiles.)

Early on in Adelstein’s career, an older, wiser, Japanese journalist pulled Adelstein aside and gave him an earful of advice—eight rules, in fact—on how to be a reporter. These rules come to form the basics of Adelstein’s journalistic ethics, but I was impacted, reading them, on how strikingly they correlated to the minister and his use of the Scriptures. The ethics of sources and writing, in other words, are very nearly the same as those of a preacher and the Word of God. Permit me, then, to quote Adelstein’s eight rules for you now. As you read, I expect that you will begin to immediately recognize the connections between a reporter’s sources and the Christian Scriptures. Still, at the end of the passage I’ll return to each of the eight rules and make the connections explicit.

The older Japanese journalist said the following:

“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.

“One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.”

“Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance, and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.

“Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.

“Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.

“Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to the unfolding investigation, and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of news let you forget about the unfinished news.

“Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.

“Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.

“Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it for you. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.” (Tokyo Vice, 26)

#1 Don’t ever burn your sources. The minister’s first responsibility is to the Scriptures and the faithful treatment of them. “Your source,” says Adelstein’s advisor, “is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.” Betray the Scriptures, and I have betrayed myself. Betray the Scriptures, and I am no longer a minister. I’m not even a man. Furthermore, “If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you.” If my ministry is based on the casual reading of Scripture, of mercenary exegesis, and convenient interpretation, then in time my people will learn to take my words as casually as I have taken my authority. I breed distrust, and breeding distrust I create un-faith. Betray the bible, and I betray the people I am called to serve. I must never, ever, ever, ever, treat the Scriptures contemptuously. They are my source, my life in ministry.

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh--seize the opportunity to talk about people's souls!

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh–seize the opportunity to talk about people’s souls!

#2 Finish a story as soon as possible. Sometimes ministry is about responding to situations, sometimes it is about planning for the long term. When those issues arise which burden the hearts of my congregation particularly—a natural disaster, a shooting, the death of a member, or some other tragedy—then I must teach from it quickly while the burden is present. I cannot sit and wait on issues while the issues go away. People’s souls need answers while their needs are strong—it is my job to answer those needs in a timely fashion. Therefore I must not wait on a scriptural story, or perhaps I will miss the opportunity for someone’s salvation.

#3 Never believe anyone. Above all, never trust yourself. A healthy doubt must accompany all personal theologizing. The scriptures are true, but I am deceptive and false, and I (and all others with me) will always squirm and worm our way out of the hard obedience. Measure all things against the Scriptures as our sole canon of Truth. Doubt everything else, especially yourself, appropriately.

Sometimes you find truth in the most unexpected of places!

Sometimes you find preachable truth in the most unexpected of places!

#4 Take any information you can get. One of the professors at my university famously said, “All Truth is God’s Truth.” He was right. If it is true, it is God’s, regardless of the human source. Therefore draw from any source you can—the sciences, humanities, pop culture, history, literature, or even books about crime in Japan—in order to facilitate the Truth of your message. Take from any source you like, only ensure that it is the Truth when you take it. Read theologians you agree with, and those you disagree with, and always be on the lookout for avenues and resources to communicate the Truth.

#5 Remember and persist. What are the long-term patterns in your ministry? What topics come up again and again? While you’re being faithful to address the temporary (albeit important) needs of your community, do you have a finger on the pulse of their longer-term needs? An issue that seems unimportant may be a harbinger of deeper concerns. One case of infidelity may signal many more! One sermon preached on a particular parable may come to be the focus of your entire ministry! Are you paying attention to those trends?

#6 Triangulate your stories. Back up what you say. Find theologians and authors who agree with your interpretation. Find a group of other ministers, also committed to the gospel, who will check and balance your teaching. Make sure you have people around you who have both the courage and the permission to say, “You’re wrong.” And make sure you have the courage to say, “You’re right.” Furthermore, don’t repeat stories if you aren’t sure they’re true. Many ministers have polluted the Truth of their message by repeating fabricated or convenient sermon illustrations. Is what you speak the Truth? Make sure before you speak.

#7 Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Write your sermons with your hearers in mind. Pay attention to their ability to hear you. Focus on take-aways and memorable moments. Make sure that, along the landscape of your sermon, the main points truly rise like peaks above the surface.

#8 Never put your personal opinions into a story. Present the Truth, and allow your people to draw their own conclusions. Present the gospel, and allow the Holy Spirit to cause the change. Speak the Scriptures, and allow the Spirit to convict people of sin. Seek, as much as is in your power, to eschew your own opinion and present the Truth of Jesus Christ. But don’t forget a dose of rule #3, and present the Truth with healthy doubt about your self. There is no minister so good that he will not be corrected, no minister so truthful that he will not fall short of the Truth in some way. This is a grace from God, because it means that we always have space for Him to move and fill our fallen sermons. Nevertheless, seek Christ first, present him above all, and leave your opinion somewhere else.

There you have it. Advice from an older, hardened Japanese reporter that applies to how ministers of the Gospel ought to handle the Scriptures (proving, again, that all Truth is God’s Truth). They are simple rules, but they provide a profound framework that shapes the ministry of the Word. May God grant that all His ministers be faithful to the Scriptures they are entrusted to teach.

 

Eagleton, Dawkins, and the Category Dismissal

In the October 19, 2006 issue of the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton published a scathing review of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.” It is not my purpose today to address either Eagleton, Dawkins, or Dawkins’s book, but rather to treat with a single, troubling argument that came from it. It’s what I’ll call, “A Category Dismissal.”

In his review, Eagleton argues that Dawkins’s assessment of Christian theology is, at best, fourth-rate. Allow me to quote his opening paragraph:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

Eagleton presents several arguments in this paragraph that are worth clarifying. First, that Dawkins’s theological knowledge is woefully inadequate given his declarations about theological truth. Second, disbelief in a theological system cripples Dawkins’s judgments regarding that system. Third, this combination (lack of knowledge plus lack of belief) produces the “vulgar caricatures” which permeate Dawkins’s prose (as well as that of other New Atheists). Fourth, the strong emotions of religious rejection fuel the process further. And fifthly, in any other discipline such ‘reasoned’ thinkers would feel obligated to study their subject in far greater depth.

He looks friendly enough, but his pen is filled with bitter ink...

In short, because Dawkins’s arguments are funded on a combination of both ignorance of and contempt for theology, he produces a vast array of easily crushed straw men which pass for arguments. Consequently, because Dawkins argues ignorantly, his arguments reflect more his own personal issues than anything particular about his favorite subject, religion. We can assert, in a sense, that Dawkins has found in Christian theology a favorite punching bag for his own anger issues (at which point we can observe that Dawkins’s arguments and methods say a great deal more about Dawkins than they do about Christianity, but that is beside my main point today).

Now, I asserted at the start that my point here is not to engage with Eagleton or Dawkins per se, but rather to identify a curious kind of argument that occurs within this debate. It is a problem that Eagleton identifies in his opening paragraph, and it is one that, ironically, the very first commentator on this article perpetuates. At the end of Eagleton’s piece, one A.C. Grayling from the University of London writes the following:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises.

And there you have it—the category dismissal in action. I have denied your premises before you stated anything, Mr. Eagleton, therefore dealing with your religious arguments is tantamount to nonsense. Case closed.

You have an argument? Look at the hair. Case closed.

This is an argumentative twist that ought to raise our rhetorical alarm flags sky high. It is an argument that says, “I don’t have to listen to you because I disagree with you.” It is an argument-ending argument of the same order as, “Because I told you so.” There’s nothing to say in response because one of the parties isn’t listening to the other at all.

Let’s dig into this little rhetorical twist a bit further and see if, by taking a step backward into abstraction, we might better decipher what happened in this argument. Eagleton asserted that Dawkins has not studied enough theology to make useful judgments regarding the subject. Grayling made the counter point that you don’t need to study theology to judge it when you reject its premises. Let’s abstract this further for more clarity: Eagleton says this: X has made judgments about subject Y. X has not studied subject Y sufficiently to substantiate his judgments. Grayling responds with this: X does not need to study Y because X rejects Y.

Viewed this way, it becomes clear that the “Category Dismissal” I’ve identified here is really just a subtle and grand form of ad hominem. Eagleton has made an argument, and Grayling has asserted in response that the fact of disagreement is sufficient argument in matters of religion. “I disagree with you. Therefore you are wrong.” Or, in the spirit of the straw-man ad hominem, “I disagree with you, therefore you are an idiot.” Eagleton has argued for complexity, and Grayling has rebutted him by saying, “You are not worth addressing.” It is a refusal to engage the subject of religion on its own terms due to a priori judgments about religion. It is a highly biased and unethical approach to discourse. It is pervasive in atheist/Christian dialogue.

I don't need hair to make arguments.

Eagleton anticipates this argument in his opening paragraph. After all, if someone (especially a scientifically motivated New Atheist) were going to make a judgment about a given subject, that person, consistent with his/her commitment to scientific inquiry, is bound to research the complexities of the subject before pronouncing a judgment on that subject. But Grayling (apparently) has made his judgments about Eagleton’s assessment of Dawkins without needing to read what Eagleton wrote. This is a move that is (either ironically or tragically) entirely within the spirit of the Category Dismissal. After all, why deal with what is built on premises you disagree with if you disagree with those premises? And what a liberating philosophy of human discourse this is! Under its auspices I can grade papers without having to study them, write book reviews without having to read the books! I can even pronounce judgments on criminals without having to investigate the evidence! Life really is much simpler when I can declare people guilty without having to listen to them.

But this is clearly both unethical and dishonest. If the rhetoric of science is to be consistent, then each claim it encounters must be examined in all its fullness and complexity. If I, an otherwise reasonable person, came to you and assert that, “Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.” You have two options. First, you can dismiss me outright as an idiot because “you disagree with the premise that anyone can rise from the dead and therefore whatever I say in regard to that premise is worthless.” Or you can consider the claim, examine the evidence, consider the source (that I appear to be a reasonable person, not prone to believing in conspiracy theories, alien abductions, or the tooth fairy), and then make a determination on whether or not you will believe my claim that Jesus Christ lives. Only one response is consistent with scientific methodology. The other is stark judgmentalism.

What stands behind the Category Dismissal (to my estimation) is the thoroughgoing materialism that continues to drive the modern scientific worldview. Having made an a priori decision that nothing immaterial exists (which, note, is an impossible claim to verify), any argument or system which treats of the immaterial is therefore (at best) suspect or (at worst) dismissed outright. But as long as there is an a priori dismissal of any kind of evidence, the scientific mindset will be closed off to what is unexpected. It will only see what it is looking for, and never what it is not looking for. But in the same way that shutting one’s eyes doesn’t make one invisible, so shutting out evidence because you believe it doesn’t exist has no power over the actual evidence. Declaring something impossible does not make it impossible.

In the end, the rejection of evidence by way of the Category Dismissal is rude, unethical, unscientific, arrogant, and above all wrong. Unless this kind of dishonest rhetoric comes to an end, there will be no fruitful discussion between atheists and Christians. But this very observation sheds light on what is most unnervingly ironic about atheist/Christian dialogue: a profound absence of reason within it. And here, perhaps, what we must see is that the declaration, “I disagree with your premises,” is not an argument; it is a statement about the feelings of the arguer. And this statement reveals the deeper problem: if the atheist admits that your religious arguments are admissible then in some ways he has opened the door to the possibility of God. Perhaps, then, unfair argument is a kind of last defense, a prickly, irritating, and irrational response to protect the atheist mind from the possibility of God. What that would imply is that what the Christian is up against in discussions with atheists is the irrational—a childish, infantile reaction to the possibility of God. “I deny your premises”–the Category Dismissal–is then the last-defense argument against the possibility of God.

Faith on the Interwebs

Not long ago I participated in an online discussion which considered the role of theology in Christian ministry on the web. The conversation was, in many ways, startling. For one thing, the role of theology was (by some) impugned as worthless and indeed inimical to Christian faith in our era. For another, during the discussion there were moments of open hostility and contempt. The whole thing, despite being conducted under the auspices of a Christian group discussing Christian ministry, felt remarkably unlike Christianity. The result was profound discomfort on my part.

Taking stock of my own frustration, I took a backseat to the discussion and attempted to discern what was going on in the substructure of that online group. From my new perspective, I came to an ironic realization: that this very discussion, which was intended to identify the role of theology in online ministry, itself displayed the precise problems of ministry on the web. And so, upon reflection, I believe I can identify three significant problems, generated by the nature of online discourse, that cloud our ability to share the Christian faith online. If we are going to share faith authentically and digitally at the same time, we must both account and compensate for these difficulties.

The Problem of Split Personality

The first problem I observe is the problem of split personalities. We are given a strange permission, due to the nature of the internet, to behave online as we would never behave in real life. And the natural consequence is that we develop online personas that are different from those we use in real life.

Several factors contribute to this personality divorce. One of them is the way that the internet encourages a kind of filterless sharing. Humans have always had an inner monologue and an outer persona—but most humans have the social know-how to recognize that not every thought ought to be shared at any given moment. Usually we learn this lesson as children. Have you heard the story about the little boy with his grandfather at the store? They were in line behind an obese woman. Suddenly, her beeper went off, and the boy announced, “Look out, Grandpa! She’s backing up!” As children we hadn’t yet learned the rules of culture, and so phrases such as “That person’s fat!” and “What’s wrong with his face?” often emerged unexpectedly and at humorous moments. As we matured we gained certain filters for our language and thoughts—in truth, what we gained was discernment, which means that we developed the ability to choose which thoughts we would share, and which we would keep to ourselves, given our present circumstances and company.

An online environment, by nature, lacks the cues to inform our sense of circumstance and company, and, as a result, the internet gives us permission to say whatever comes into our minds at a given moment, without reflection, without concern for how others might feel or react. What we experience online, then, is essentially the inner monologues of unrestrained and discourteous children. For a given discussion, a participant can throw an intellectual stink bomb into a room, then run away and never deal with the consequences. After all, all that you require to be a participant is a keyboard, but nothing else. And hence the rules of courtesy, of discourse, of discussion, of propriety, and even of human kindness become disposable in the online environment. The problem of split personality, then, is a problem of maturity.

Another factor, however, which contributes to split personalities online is the native anonymity of the internet. The screen name may be one of the most regrettable developments in our era. How are you to know, even when someone uses a ‘real’ name, whether such a person is really that person? You cannot, unless you have met and confirmed with the person in real life. And anonymity such as this gives permission for a number of things: it permits us to pretend we are not ourselves—we can intentionally alter our online personas. Anonymity also permits us to say “what we’re really thinking”—a regrettable sentiment which is really shorthand for “the ugly thoughts I cannot share in polite company.” Don’t get me wrong, not all anonymity is bad—there are times when, for external reasons, it is better for people to share from the security of an alias—but those times are rare. Most often online, anonymity serves as the darkness under which we hide our indiscretions.

The Problem of Ugly Equality

The second difficulty generated by the nature of online discourse is what I call ugly equality. The internet, divorced from personality, anonymous, and unfiltered, also flattens each participant to the same level. Every person’s thoughts appear in the same font, on the same page, with the same background colors and designs. There are only infrequent and unreliable ways to mark expertise or qualification. A person can post, and repost, and repost thoughts that have been addressed, modified, and corrected by others. The result is a form of discussion group spam; a victory of argument by attrition and volume. Added to this flattening effect is, as part of the DNA of the internet, the latent distrust of authority. The internet celebrates what it calls “freedom of expression.” As with all freedoms, this one is capable of abuse as well as good use. At times, it provides the conditions for incredible, stunning creativity. But the dark side of this “freedom” is that it violently despises any limitations.

The combination of this flattening effect and the distrust of authority creates the ugly equality of the internet. Ugly because it is flattens what ought to be textured, as if two dimensions were superior to three, or as if sheer volume can replace subtlety, or as if the opinion of the masses determines what is right. It is ugly because a mob is always ugly. But it is also ugly equality because it is disingenuous—there are real authorities in our lives, which must be honored and often obeyed. And especially in a theological context, there is a final Authority Who will be obeyed and honored with or without our permission. Thus, the freedom presented by the online environment is unreal and deceptive. It is a freedom most decidedly expressed in a direction away from God. It is a profoundly rebellious environment.

In such an environment, only a few factors serve to mark who is, and is not, worth listening to. One of these is humor. If you are funny, you win arguments. Make the masses laugh—and especially if you can make them laugh at authority, or tradition, or anything that smacks of control—and you win the mob’s affection. Another factor is popularity. In a mob rule, celebrities are politicians—become famous and your opinion will have validity. And a final factor, interestingly, is grammar, the ultimate leveler of ideas. Because if I can find a spelling error in your thoughts, I can dismiss your opinion regardless of its content.

As a result of these factors, during a Christian discussion the claim that “I am a pastor,” or “I have a degree in theology,” or, “I have eight years of ministry experience” accounts for precisely nothing. Each opinion, due to the flattening of the internet, is valued equally. This is quite absurd, because in no serious place in real life do we act similarly. If you want investment advice, you go to someone who has experience and training in investments. If you want medical advice, you go to someone with experience and training in the medical field. The same should naturally be true in matters theological and spiritual, and yet the flattening effect of the online environment levels every player to the same field. My opinion online counts for as much as the next guy—whether he be an angry emo kid living in his parent’s basement, or a theological PhD in a university.

The Problem of Gnosticism

A final difficulty (for our purposes) generated by the online environment is what I will call Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a heretical way of thinking that denigrates the physical in praise of the spiritual. As such, the online environment, as a space of disembodied discourse, is a profoundly Gnostic place. Online we are pure minds, without bodies, sharing our thoughts and interacting as pure spirits in a kind of metaphysical space.

This divorce from the physical is what stands behind the splitting and flattening of our personalities. But it is distinct from the two previous problems in this way: it is anti-Church. The Church is the physical people of God gathered together, unified, and led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is within the context of our physical churches that we grow in Christlikeness, where we grow to learn about Jesus, where we must practice practical forgiveness, practical love, practical suffering, and all the practical aspects of our Christian life. Christianity—following Christ—is nothing if not a set of practical relationships lived in space and time with other people. The online environment, in removing the physical body, removes the primary field where we practice our faith.

In short, a personal Church is essential to faith. It is within the local church that we learn submission to godly authority. We are taught (which means that we come to the spiritual table as learners, and not authorities). We are directed (which means that someone else helps to guide and shape our faith). By contrast, an ‘online’ church has no real power, no real teeth to its teachings. Say what you like online, and the worst that can happen is that you’ll be banned from a discussion group. Even if that’s the case, you can always join under a different, anonymous user name. There is no way to determine who is right and who is wrong, only by appeal, or repetition, or popularity contest. The only real consequence the internet has to offer is that you would be ignored. This is not how the Church operates.

Furthermore, without personality, how do you change the mind of a person who is wrong? It is impossible to reason a person into understanding, because reason never changed a person’s mind who refused to be changed. Hence, all the back-and-forth of arguments on the internet are almost entirely useless; much heat is created, but little light. And the real reason for this is because in almost every case some other factor stands between that person and truth. Thus, your debate lacks teeth because it lacks personality. After all, God did not send us a list of reasoned arguments for why we should serve Him, He sent us Jesus in the flesh—a person.

Lastly, the Gnosticism of the online environment contributes to the idea that the Church doesn’t matter, or that local church involvement is secondary to faith. It contributes to the sense that “All I need is Jesus and my bible”—another truly regrettable sentiment. We are not, after all, pure ideas, or pure souls, or even pure individuals. We cannot and must not deal with one another, whether online or in real life, as if we were only such and nothing else. Our discourse, then, online, can only ever at its best be accurate, but it can never be truly personal. And here we must not confuse the word personal with the idea of “sharing my personality.” Personal here means the physical wholeness of another, warm-blooded human being, who is sharing with me, as I am, in my body, right now. It is a kind of relationship that is a digital impossibility. There is no such thing as an online Church.

Solutions

Split personalities, ugly equality, and Gnosticism: three severe problems to account for when sharing the Christian faith online. Accounting for these, how shall we go forward?

Regarding split personalities, we must, as Christians, make sure that we employ online personalities that are in harmony with our real-life personalities. We must be consistent people. We must beware the temptation to harness the power of anonymity so that you can just “let loose.” Toward this end, a good measure is to remember that if something is inappropriate in real life, it is also inappropriate online.

Then, with personalities that are consistent, honest, and courteous, we must engage and comment both faithfully and consistently. Remember that, by and large, and regardless of what your interlocutor says, you are engaging with a culture that is composed of spiritual infants. And so in our comments we will rarely move beyond the milk of our faith. But what that means is that we must know that milk inside and out. You must be able to articulate the basic essentials of the Christian faith repeatedly and clearly. Learn your creeds. Know your scriptures. Remember that because qualifications and experience are irrelevant, consistency is our best weapon. Never tire of the basics. And remember, as well, that you are writing as much for other people who read what you say as you are for the individual with whom you are having your particular conversation.

Lastly, remember not to view the online community as a true reflection of real life. Don’t be dragged into the Gnostic deception. And never allow the internet to replace real community with real people in your real life. One hour in genuine bible study with fellow believers is worth, to the health of your soul, a thousand hours in online groups. Because while you may learn a great many facts in such a group, you will never learn how to be a person following Christ in relation to other real people. You will be all head, and no life.

Christ, Incarnate for us in the Virgin Mary.

The prevalence of the internet is only going to continue to increase, and no doubt, as a consequence, these attitudes will begin more and more to become part of our everyday experiences. We don’t have to look far to see discourteous and socially unaware people, we don’t have to speak out loud for long to discover a society-wide distrust of authority, and Gnosticism is as old as Christianity. What that means, then, is that the responses I advocate here must be an essential part, not only of our online lives, but of our everyday Christian walk. In all things, then, we must be authentic, faithful, knowledgeable, and lastly, with our Lord Christ as the primary example, personal.